The first postcard is discolored where splotches of water ran through ink and print. On the front is a photo of Monte Carlo. The sea is blue. Fernando wrote in black:
Beautiful days. Aren't you jealous of me, playing all day and playing more at night. Don't worry haven't lost all my money yet. :)
He doesn't sign his name. He doesn't need to. Raúl tucks it between the pages of a photo album and puts everything on an upper shelf, behind his books.
September melts into fall.
It rains, in Madrid.
Accompanying the one-word email is a photo of...a sculpture. That perhaps looks like a dog, if you turn your head one way. If you turn the other way, it looks like a banana that developed aspirations to walk. Not altogether successfully.
He checks his email once a day, his mailbox twice as often. It's another month before a postcard arrives.
Another panorama. Another city. Monaco was sun and sea; Merseyside, sea and stone.
Close enough to be throwing these over in a paper airplane now, Fernando writes, and Raul thinks, at least Valencia is warm.
Warmer, but still not home.
Except that's not quite right. Raúl has to remind himself that home is not automatically Madrid, not for everyone. Even if it should be.
He goes shopping with Mamen, determined to buy something for Fernando. Nothing seems right. The only things that catch his eye are books, CDs — things he would choose for himself. He wonders if it should bother him, that this is so. They're just things, after all.
Then again, it never used to matter, because Fernando was always thinking of him, too.
One morning there is no postcard, as there often is not, and he picks up the newspaper instead. His thumb catches on a lower corner, a small picture of Valencia CF.
Fernando is smiling, arms around a teammate and the colors are all wrong.
His bones ache with the coming of spring.
At night he dreams of sun, but staring up into the blinding lights of the Bernabéu, he can only close his eyes.
You need to take my example and get out more, see all the world you're missing.
Love from Marseille.
He still doesn't sign his name. Raúl takes down the photo album filled with postcards that might as well have been anonymous, had anyone else read them. Fernando always picks the most generic shots and landmarks.
Every city is large enough to lose yourself in, if you really wanted to be forgotten.
In the end, he does leave Fernando the new mailing address, for Gelsenkirchen. Mamen reminds him, off-hand, over breakfast.
August brings the last phone call.
"It was time." Fernando's voice still suggests a laugh, but Raúl doesn't feel terribly open to suggestions today.
He says, "As long as you're happy," and stops himself before he adds, then I am, too.
He unclenches his hand, something stronger than guilt pulling him away. The postcard from Valencia, years ago, sways mutely on his desk. A crease like wrinkled heartlines slashes down the middle, through the one line of blocky penmanship:
Coming home this weekend, act surprised if this gets there before I do.
He wonders, sometimes.
When Raúl retires from European football, he tells the world it's for family reasons. Tells himself that too until the lie begins to sound like a confession, almost.
He turns down offers from Seattle, New York, Los Angeles.
Just one year, he tells Mamen. One more year. Then they can go home, for good.
Qatar isn't home.
Neither is Monaco, England, France. He can't explain why he wants to go anyway. It doesn't make sense, to look for something that was never lost in the first place.
But still he wants—
Because the story goes like this:
Raúl González lives his whole life in Madrid, and even when he no longer does, still wakes up every morning expecting to hear Spanish on streets of sun-touched cobblestone. To look at himself and see the escudo imprinted over his heart. To look over his shoulder, and find Fernando always there.
For seven long years, Fernando sends him postcards from all the places he goes, and always goes alone. Raúl reads them, keeps them, answers when his phone rings, the way water flows downhill. The Fernando in his memory is forever smiling. He holds to that.
Because they don't know how to let go. Never learned, never thought they should; never dreaming that they one day would.